Expectations and endings – a musey thoughtsy about The Soldier’s Rebel Lover by Marguerite Kaye

In one of my recent(ish) email exchanges with Marguerite Kaye (who, in addition to writing some
of my favorite historical romance novels, is a fabulous correspondent), I mentioned that I wanted to start a new series of posts on my blog called musey thoughtsies, places where I or any guest posters could ramble on about whatever. It was just starting to get hot where I live, and there had just been a fire, and I 20150814_145838rambled on in my email about the impact of my home climate — drought-riddled chaparral — on my ability to sojourn in green lands. I spent a week in Ohio over the summer and found it claustrophobic: so much green growth reaching up to the sky and clouds reaching down, enclosing all around.

Anyway, Marguerite encouraged my musey thoughtsy idea, because she’s made of awesome. On Friday I’ll have her on with a guest musey thoughtsy about never-ending rain (something I can’t comprehend at all). But for now, I want to talk about her most recent book.

When Major Finlay Urquhart was last on the battlefield, he shared a sizzling moment with daring Isabella Romero. Two years later, Finlay has one final duty to perform for his country, one that reunites him with this rebellious senorita! Except Isabella has her own mission, which means that no matter how much she craves Finlay’s touch, she can never tell him the truth. But she’s underestimated Finlay’s determination to protect her, and soon she finds herself letting her guard down, one scorching kiss at a time!

God, that cover. It’s grown on me a little bit, but I can’t help but wonder exactly how uncomfortable that model was. Corsets aren’t comfortable when you’re vertical, but they’re about forty times worse when you’re lying down. And then having to be nose to nose with another model, trying not to breathe in his face when you can barely get a good breath anyway… It must have been awful. I guess it’s a good thing that I’m not part of the decision-making process for any covers, because I’m pretty sure I’d find something to complain about every time. Anyway… the book.

I opened The Soldier’s Rebel Lover with high expectations. There’s a good reason that I write about Kaye’s books so frequently on this blog (pretty much every time a new one comes out). They sing to my soul. It’s like she starts with an idea of a heroine, usually someone interesting and a little bit different and beset by a problem that I recognize, and then she builds the story around her.

Be honest: how many times when reading historical romance do you get the sense that the story was built around the heroine? Not often. It’s the heroes who are usually at the focus of both the narrative and our attention. As readers, we want to fall in love with the hero, and all we require from the heroine is that she be worthy of her hero, whatever that means, and not too “difficult.”

Kaye’s interest in her heroines — and through them her readers — and in the issues that impact those heroines — and continue to impact her readers (and herself) today — shines through her writing, even when she’s trying to write a series that is hero-centric. I still feel like what she’s really trying to do is to tell my story, to make sense of my world. And, selfish being that I am, I find that I love the experience. Continue reading

Books and love: The Professor by Charlotte Stein

So, I think by now it’s clear that I love me some Charlotte Stein. I love her books. I love her Twitter feed. I have aspirational thoughts sometimes — usually when I’m in the middle of one of her books — that I’ll overcome my intense dislike of travel and just, like, show up at her house (somehow) and… ? I usually stop there. Even I can’t think, despite my being rather charming in a painfully awkward kind of way, that my turning up at someone’s house unannounced could be anything but creepy and terrible.

(By the way, I’ve just revealed a grim truth: my aspirational thoughts deflate rather quickly under the pressure of my practical mental habits. Ask me about my hopes and dreams sometime, and you’ll see just how drab my mental landscape can be.)

Anyway… I read a book:

Esther wrote down her fantasies about her tutor, but she never intended for him to read them.
Once they cross the line there’s no going back.
Esther has always been an average student. She coasts through life on a sea of Bs, until a fatal mistake jolts her out of mediocrity and into something else entirely. She accidentally leaves a story in an essay for her teacher — one that no teacher should ever see. And especially not Professor Harding.
His lectures are legendary, and he is formidable. But most of all: he is devastatingly handsome, and now he has Esther’s most private and erotic fantasies. The stage is set for humiliation. Until the Professor presents her with a choice. He offers private tuition at his home.
And at first that’s exactly what she does, sure there remains a line between teacher and student that she would never cross it and that someone like Harding never would. He is far too cold and sharp, and so invested in all of his rules that breaking them seems unthinkable.
A single touch would be too much.
A wrong word could ignite an inferno.
So what happens when both of them want to burn?

I love how books figure in Stein’s writing, how often a love of books is what draws the characters together, as though their physical attraction is largely based on their discovery (their sense, sometimes like radar) of a shared love of books. Stein’s characters love books, tend to feel detached from others, and often take refuge in each other as fellow sojourners from alien planets (perhaps planets populated by readers, that bizarre species). The Professor takes this theme of Stein’s work (present in several of my favorites, including — most recently — Taken and Sweet Agony) and gives it pride of place. Amid book-strewn habitats and a wealth of literary references, these two readers (and writers) negotiate emotional and physical intimacy.

So maybe The Professor isn’t going to end up being one of my favorites of Stein’s work (there’s not quite enough connection to the hero and his conflicts (perhaps because he keeps fleeing the scene), and it’s also not quite as neurotically funny as my favorites tend to be), but… and maybe this doesn’t make any sense, but if the entire body of Stein’s work is a symphony in three or four parts (with her various themes being the three or four movements), then this book is the bass line to one of those movements: essential to any attempt to analyze what’s going on. I certainly feel as though, having read it, I have a better understanding of all the books that came before.

As usual, I’ve been dithering on this post. (I dithered so much that I read Taken again — for the fourth time — because I was trying to figure out what it was about it that I liked so much. I mean, these two books have an awful lot in common: older, somewhat restrained, massive (possibly secret werewolf) hero matched with younger, utterly neurotic, sexually unrestrained heroine. Both books have a slight Beauty and the Beast vibe (you get a hint of it in the cover of The Professor) with the heroine somehow compelled into their company at the beginning, the attraction developing out of a shared love of books, and all the hairy (literal and figurative) issues and fears. Here’s the thing: Taken is also damn charming and funny as hell. I can’t say that it would work for every reader — some folk might not share my love of neurotica, and Taken has a double dose. I mean, really:

“Now I know you’re screwing with me. Either that or trying to flatter me to get out of this — which by the way is even worse than begging for your life. You should not have to say nice things to get out of this. It is way worse if you have to say nice things to get out of this. I will probably get beat up in prison, if I’m not somehow mysteriously killed in the squad car on the way to the station first.”
“Well, before you are, could you maybe just speak a little of it for me?”
“Speak a little of what exactly? What are we talking about here?”
“We were talking about the German that you might possibly speak”
“I thought we were talking about me holding you against your will then being arrested and murdered in a police car, after which there will be a Lifetime movie based on my life called Ugly Hairy Guy Held Me Hostage: The Whatever Your Name Is Story,” he says.

So, yeah. There’s neurotic narration and a lot of neurotic dialogue, but it worked for me. Through the rambling, ever-so-slightly crazy dialogue, you really get to know Johann, and you’re rooting for him and Rosie both, even when they’re being ridiculous.

By contrast, The Professor is a bit more serious in its tone. To an extent, that’s a good thing. I mean, Stein is dealing with some hinky territory here with the professor/student dynamic. But the book is not quite as much fun, and… I missed the fun. Also, Harding is much more remote (sometimes actually remote, like when he just picks up and leaves several times over) and thus (for me) harder to root for as a hero.

But to get back to that bass line, I would probably not have noticed that Johann and Rosie’s courtship in Taken is so deeply dependent upon books were it not for The Professor. (And in Sweet Agony when Cyrian gives Molly full access to the library and reads to her — basically one of the most romantic gestures there ever could be — isn’t it the first indication that they’re kindred souls, despite her background and his otherworldliness?) So maybe The Professor isn’t quite better than the sum of its parts (to me), but those parts — the critiques Harding offers on Esther’s writing; the gut-punch of Harding’s writing; the epistolary scenes; the literary references; and Esther’s strength at the end — are better than most other wholes.

In case you’re curious (not sure why would be, but whatever), I purchased copies of all three books, but I also received an e-ARC of Sweet Agony for review consideration.

The battle of the stereotypes: douche-canoe vs. cat lady

Hi again! So a couple of months ago (or something? Whatever. Some time ago. Any mention of time gets really complicated when it takes me months to write a damn post.), I saw a series of tweets from Charlotte Stein about how much she loved Magic Mike XXL. I was particularly struck by these:

(I mean, sort of as an aside, I think your life is missing something if you’re not following Charlotte Stein on Twitter. She’s magical.) Anyway, these tweets struck me because I’d read and was sort of mentally circling Jessica Clare’s latest billionaire release, and they helped me identify an element about the book that I found both fascinating and a little problematic.

Edie’s an overbearing cat behaviorist who’s not big on people. Magnus is a newly-rich game developer who likes to be in control. When the two of them meet at Gretchen and Hunter’s masquerade engagement party, the loathing is mutual. Unfortunately for them—and everyone else—they’re in the wedding party together and must deal with each other for the next few months.

But when Magnus’s younger brother falls for Edie’s sister, he begs for his brother’s help in concocting a plan to win her over. If Magnus can keep the prickly Edie occupied, his brother will have time to woo Edie’s sister. Of course, Magnus isn’t interested in the slightest, but Edie is…intriguing. And stubborn. And smart. And sexy. And they might have more in common than they thought.

Before long, it becomes a challenge between the two of them to see who will be tamed first. But how’s Edie going to react when she finds out that Magnus is using her? And how’s Magnus going to handle the fact that he’s fallen for a cat lady?

I had to read this book, you guys. It had me at Shakespeare, of course, but there was the also the promise of Gretchen (one of my favorite romance heroines of all time) and the cat lady thing. And it totally delivered on all three fronts — as a Taming of the Shrew adaptation it worked almost as well as Ten Things I Hate About You (my favorite adaptation…); there was definitely a lot of Gretchen in the book, and she was as sassy and balls-to-the-wall as I’ve come to expect; and cats ended up figuring prominently in the plot of the book — but the meet cute very nearly derailed the whole thing.

Before Edie is introduced to Magnus, she overhears him and a few of the other groomsmen talking shit about the bridesmaids (dishing on their relative fuckability, basically), and she takes an instant dislike to him both because it’s just a shitty thing to do and because he makes a snide comment about cat ladies. Don’t get me wrong: I’m a Pride and Prejudice fan, and I like the heroine overhears the hero saying something objectionable and takes an instant dislike to him trope as much as anybody. My beef with this particular meet-cute is that Magnus acts in a decidedly unheroic manner (although not nearly as unheroic as the other douchebags in the scene), and that makes it really hard to root for him later on. (Actually, let me interrupt myself again… it’s entirely possible that Clare will make some of those other douchebags the heroes of their own books at some point, so it’s not just a question of Magnus’ being unheroic… I’m wondering if we’ve got an entire series built around — or at least involving — douchey heroes. Anyway, I guess that’s a worry for the future.) There’s a world of difference between “She’s tolerable, I suppose, but not handsome enough to tempt me” and “Shut the fuck up…Or I’m gonna insist you hook up with the cat ladies. Just don’t get them too excited or you might end up with a hairball on your–”

I’m hesitating on letting that paragraph stand, by the way, because I’m not 100% certain that I wouldn’t love, just for the sake of its being subversive, a story that centered around a heroine who behaved pretty much the way Magnus does at the beginning of The Taming of the Billionaire. It feels different to me because Magnus isn’t being subversive here… he’s behaving exactly the way I’ve been culturally conditioned to believe all men behave in groups when isolated from women (or when interacting through the buffer of the internet, perhaps). But, honestly? This seems like lazy characterization, and that’s why it bothers me (beyond the obvious that it confirms and perpetuates a ridiculous gender myth; sure, the book seems to say, all men are douchebags, but only until they meet the right cat lady.). This is a Taming of the Shrew adaptation, so there has to be some antipathy between the main characters, and I would have liked it so much more if that antipathy were more complicated than the inherent conflict between a douche-canoe and a cat lady.

(It’s possible that someone out there is still wondering why 10 Things I Hate About You is my favorite adaptation of this story. It’s probably got more to do with my age than anything, but (and I just re-watched it) it still strikes me as funny and interesting and manages to balance its more questionable elements with some unexpected social analysis. I do wish that there were more groveling at the end, but I pretty much always want more groveling.)

Anyway, back to The Taming of the Billionaire… While I was tempted to give up on the book after the inauspicious meet cute, I’m glad I stuck with it. It features perhaps the grandest (certainly the most cat-filled) romantic gesture I’ve ever come
across in a romance novel, and it has all the groveling I could ever want. I’m going to keep reading Jessica Clare’s billionaire stories. Among the veritable horde of such stories, hers stand out for humor and a batch of truly badass heroines who are (for me) the antidote to all those stories about PAs who are swept away by money rain and terrible behavior. Bonus, as of this posting date, The Taming of the Billionaire is $0.99. I’d jump on that if I were you.

*FTC disclosure – I received an e-ARC from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration. My opinion is my own.*

Discussion – The Tempting of Thomas Carrick by Stephanie Laurens

I want to make it clear right from the start that I’m about to spend an ungodly amount of words discussing this book (not, precisely, reviewing it). There will be spoilers about the romance portion of the story. You’ve been warned.

This is a story of a woman who had a weakness — against all reason — for a particular author’s books. You could call it an illness. Even as each successive book repeated the tired pattern of the first few genuinely interesting and enjoyable, if not downright good, books, she could not stop buying them. She cringed at the overwrought everything, the incredibly odd sex scenes, the problematic plotting, the sheer amount of danger threatening this relatively small community. Seriously. This is the 22nd Cynster book, and if you add in the 14 other books set in a related world, that’s a fuck-ton of murderers, kidnappers, and traitors per capita. The people in that world should pretty much be walking around like this at all times:

Oh, yeah. I guess I should mention that I’m going to use an excessive amount of Psych gifs in this review. (Why, you ask? Because Psych is awesome, and because I had the most fun I’ve had in weeks troving for these gifs. Also, I want to watch Pysch again. You should, too. Besides, I’m going to write a lot of words about this book, and goofy animated clips will make it all more interesting, right?)

Anyway, where was I in my story? Right, so the woman read a whole pile of these books and then — significantly later than she should have (read: after she finished the 30th book) — she had an epiphany: they’re all the same. Her deep disappointment prompted her to write a post, which connected her with other recovering Stephanie Laurens addicts. She’d like to tell you that she held strong after that, stayed on the wagon, but she didn’t.

Read on to hear about The Tempting of Thomas Carrick, my 33rd Stephanie Laurens book.

Thomas Carrick is determined to make his own life in the bustling port city of Glasgow, far from the demands of the Carrick clan, eventually with an appropriate wife on his arm. But disturbing events on his family’s estate force Thomas to return to the Scottish countryside—where he is forced to ask for help from the last woman he wants to face. Thomas has never forgotten Lucilla Cynster and the connection that seethes between them, but to marry Lucilla would mean embracing a life he’s adamant is not for him.

Strong-willed and passionate, Lucilla knows Thomas is hers—her fated lover, husband, protector, mate. He is the only man for her, just as she is his one true love. How can he ignore a bond stronger than reason and choose a different path? She’s determined to fight for their future, and while she cannot command him, she has enticements of her own to wield when it comes to tempting Thomas Carrick.

Let me start out by saying — if you’re going to read this book — you should consider reading the novella that sets it up, By Winter’s Light(If you’re a fan of strange book blurbs, I recommend you follow that link and check it out. The blurb is a blow-by-blow.) I didn’t read the novella, and I was very confused by these characters’ strange antics and the lack of a solid meet-cute. I mean, for reals, you spend the first 50 pages following Thomas around his day-to-day life. The book kind of assumes that you know that these two characters are destined to be together. It kind of assumes that you know why Thomas is reluctant to agree to his destiny. It assumes that you know what it means for Lucilla to be the “Lady in Waiting of the Vale.” (I’ll tell you, because it’ll make the rest of this discussion a trifle less strange: she’s a priestess to an ancient deity. So destiny means something more to her than to your average gal.) I didn’t know many of those things. I just thought everybody was cray cray.

I guess that’s my bottom line. This book is incredibly odd. When Thomas finally meets up with Lucilla (after, apparently, avoiding her for 2 years), Thomas internalizes for a few pages, and finally is like, “Oh, hi, I need your help, let’s go.” And Lucilla’s like, “Great. Let’s. ……… wait a minute. What’d you do to my brother?” “Oh, it’s no biggie,” says Thomas. “I just knocked him unconscious because I don’t have time to explain the situation to him.” And Lucilla replies, “LOL, k. Lemme write him a note and tuck it into his pocket. You’re right. It’s NBD.” And she leaves Marcus on the ground.

For the first half of the book, Thomas and Lucilla attempt to solve the mystery of who poisoned the Carrick clan healer and the entire Bradshaw family, who pushed the healer’s sister Faith down the stairs of the “disused wing” of Carrick Manor, who let an adder into the still room, who broke into Lucilla’s room and threatened to smother her with a pillow, and — finally — who possessed the prescience and amazing ability to aim a giant stone gargoyle down a several-stories’ fall to nearly kill Thomas and Lucilla, strolling below. Along the way, Thomas and Lucilla kiss on occasion (because this is a romance novel).

The thing is, though, that Thomas and Lucilla’s story isn’t very romantic. That’s partly because so much of the story line for the first half of the book remains fixed on the whodunnit plot, and it’s partly because nearly all of the characterization establishing Thomas and Lucilla, their attraction to one another, their mutual “destiny,” and (I assume) the conflict that’s been keeping them apart (Thomas’s wanting to live his own life and make his own choices) is missing from this book, presumably detailed in the prequel novella. Soooo that’s a problem. But, honestly, I think the bigger problem is that Lucilla and Thomas bring little to the romance party other than instalust, and y’all know how I feel about that. (If you don’t, you’re either new here or you’ve got terrible reading comprehension skills. Fingers crossed for the former.) As much as I’m inclined to enjoy a story wherein the heroine is the instigator of all things physical, Lucilla’s aggressive pursuit of Thomas actually creeped me out a little. He mentions a few times that he’s just not that into her, that — yeah — he’d like to bone her, but she’s just not his type for a long-term deal, and her response is “lol. I’ll wear him down eventually. He can’t fight destiny.”

So, yeah. Right after the dude with a pillow sort of kind of threatens to kill Lucilla, she’s like, “hey man, I know we just talked like one page ago about how you’re looking to marry some nice woman down in Glasgow, so you can continue to run your business, but… let’s fuck.” And he’s like, “yeah, cool, we can have a fling. Sure. Why not? But no commitment, k?” On the one hand, I think it’s worthwhile to point out that Stephanie Laurens has done something completely new here, but it’s not exactly a good new thing.

I suspect the best way to explain what I mean is to tell you a little bit about Lucilla’s parents’ story (my favorite of all the Cynster books), Scandal’s Bride. Some 30 years before the events of this book, Catriona, the Lady of the Vale, meets Richard Cynster and knows (because she’s a freaky priestess lady) that he’s destined to be the father of her children. So she drugs him (I’m not kidding) with a mix of downers and uppers, if ya know what I mean, and has her way with him. (Right about now you should be shaking your head and wondering how in the fuck I could call a book that glorifies rape “my favorite.” I know. There are some deeply problematic elements to this book (to every Cynster book, truth be told), but there’s not a power imbalance between these characters, and the narrative takes pains to point out just how wrong Catriona’s actions are. The story ends up working (for me) because Richard, despite having his choice taken away from him initially, pushes through and demands his own agency. Yes, the book is pretty ridiculous and melodramatic (lots and lots of external conflict driving the characters’ internal journeys: Richard is poisoned, a barn catches fire close to the house, etc.), but it’s interesting.)

ANYWAY. Cynster fans (even we reluctant ones) will naturally contrast The Tempting of Thomas Carrick with its forebear. We’ll look at Thomas’s relative lack of agency and be concerned. We’ll look at his being seemingly content with a booty call and be concerned. We’ll look at Lucilla’s inability or unwillingness to use her words and be concerned. And we’ll spend so much time being concerned that we end up missing out on any sweeping romance (assuming any is there). That’s unfortunate.

Anyway, soon after the falling gargoyle incident, Thomas and Lucilla up and leave Carrick Manor (because someone is clearly trying to kill them, among other, slightly less interesting, reasons) and decamp to the Vale (Lucilla’s digs), and readers are left with a lot of frankly boring sex scenes (although I did cheer when “ecstasy painted a sunburst on the inside of his lids,” because that is awesome.) and multiple scenes detailing Thomas’s bucolic bliss. I mean, it is kind of nice seeing that Thomas genuinely enjoys his time in the Vale — makes it less creepy that he’s destined to live there as Lucilla’s consort whether he likes it or not — but I couldn’t figure out how the story could possibly be headed anywhere half as interesting as figuring out whodunnit. Meanwhile, the whodunnit plot completely fizzles out and is not brought up again until the very end of the book. In fact, the whodunnit plot may (or may not, I mean… who knows?) get solved in the next book.

Yeah. Right?!

I was super disappointed when the whodunnit plot was abandoned, because it was interesting, you guys (even though it was kind of obvious whodunnit and even though it took the characters on several jaunts through the “disused wing” and involved a lot of conversation about the “disused wing.”).

Then Thomas realizes — with 100 pages still left in the book, I might add — that Lucilla has been like, “Ima show him what life by my side will be like. It will be awesome. *SUNBURST*” And Thomas gets super pissed (because he rightfully feels manipulated and betrayed) and leaves, after some shouting. Let me repeat that crucial phrase: there are still 100 pages left in the book at that point. I wondered if I’d get to read another 50 pages of Thomas wandering around Glasgow, doing his business, going to parties, before he suddenly realizes that he’s the hero of a romance novel and had better suck it up and get back to his lady-love. Actually, it was about 10 pages of heartbroken Lucilla internal monologue, 15 pages of Thomas wandering around Glasgow in mostly-internal monologue, 20 pages of Thomas making amends first to Lucilla’s family members (WTF) then to her, and finally 50ish pages of setting up the next book.

Yeah. I haven’t even gotten to the way the book is structured (The POV shifts frequently, like every few paragraphs, for no reason — other than lazy writing, of course — and Lucilla is given significantly less page time than Thomas and is significantly less well-developed; both things bothered me to no end.) and the inconsistencies in Lucilla’s character (briefly: she’s the acting-Lady, but she doesn’t seem to do any of the things Catriona did. Her priestess duties seem tacked on and not really part of her actual character.). (Also, I was promised enticements (in the blurb). Where the hell were the enticements? As far as I could tell, the only enticements Lucilla wielded to tempt Thomas were poontang and destiny.) But, anyway, this post is plenty long enough. Besides, you get the idea. The Tempting of Thomas Carrick is not only odd but also just straight-up bad. It’s worse than the Black Cobra intrigue-infested travelogues. And maybe the reason I feel such keen disappointment is that my hopes were so high: after all, I still love Scandal’s Bride, even after everything. I wanted so much to love this book, too, but I can’t.

Marcus’s book is projected to be released in May, and I know I shouldn’t read it…

Hey, don’t judge me. That whodunnit plot really was interesting. And I have an illness!

Feel free to discuss this book with me in the comments or on Twitter, even if you liked it, and you’re thinking to yourself, “why is this horrible person making fun of something I love? And why did I just read 2,000 words about it?!” And if, like me, you’re recovering (or attempting recover, or saying “eh, fuck it” like I clearly am) from an addiction to these books, let’s talk about ’em! What’s your favorite? Do you agree with me that Scandal’s Bride is crazysauce yet wonderful?

The Tempting of Thomas Carrick was released on February 24, 2015 by MIRA (a Harlequin imprint). For more information about the book, click on the cover image above to visit the book’s page on Goodreads.

*FTC Disclosure – I received an ARC of this book from Rock Star PR for review consideration. Somewhat obviously my opinion is my own.*

Wounded military code-breakers, artists, agony aunts and engineers

Oh my. The title of this post reminds me of…

Yeah… Anyway. Y’all know that I’m a fan of Marguerite Kaye’s books, right? I mean, I think it’s pretty obvious. I’ve written about her books here, here, here, here, and here. (And probably a few other places besides.) I choose to delude myself with the pretty lie that she’s actually writing these books for me. I’m totally her target audience, after all. I go nuts for heroine-centric historical romance that’s on the serious side, and Kaye’s releases over the last few years (from, say, 2012 on) have consistently delivered my reading catnip.

Kaye has a new release out this week, and it’s a little different from her recent books. [Update: turns out, I’m a trifle precipitous here… the book will be released on March 1. Three cheers for preorder?]

The truth behind the hero Officer Jack Trestain may have been one of Wellington’s most valued code-breakers, but since Waterloo, he’s hung up his uniform. If only he could just as easily put aside the tortured memories he carries deep within; Perhaps enchanting French artist Celeste Marmion might be the distraction he so desperately craves?

Except Celeste harbors secrets of her own, and questions that she needs Jack’s help to solve! With Celeste’s every touch an exquisite temptation, how close can Jack get without revealing his darkest secret of all?

Look, it’s not every day that I sympathize with Lydia Bennett, but can we talk for a second about that guy’s regimentals? And maybe his jaw, too. Damn!

Yum.

You can tell from the cover and title of The Soldier’s Dark Secret that it isn’t exactly my heroine-centric catnip. This book is very much the story of its hero. Don’t get me wrong: I still loved it, but that’s mostly because Celeste is a well-wrought character whose story gets you in all the feels even though it gets less page time overall and is much more subtle. But you should probably take me with a grain of salt, here. I suspect I’m an atypical reader in that it’s usually the way the heroine is handled that makes me love (or hate) a book. I’m all for great heroes, of course, but they’re not usually the focus of my attention. I’ve noticed, in conversation with other readers, that my perspective might be considered unusual.

Jack has returned from Waterloo with what modern readers will easily recognize is a nasty case of PTSD. Kaye does a remarkable job of blending this fraught issue (terribly fraught for its time — after all, it’s not as though Regency era England is known for its compassionate response to mental illness of any sort — and fraught for our current time, as well… let’s be honest: we just barely do better (if at all) at responding to these types of war injuries.) in the story without it becoming an issue book. It’s just part of Jack’s character, and he has to learn to live with it.

Celeste is a French landscape artist with a mysterious past, and most of the plot is devoted to uncovering that mystery, but it’s Celeste’s internal journey from complete emotional disconnect — her entire childhood lives in a memory box labeled “DO NOT OPEN” — to integrated emotional health that is (to me, of course) the most interesting thing about the book, especially because it so neatly balances Jack’s more outwardly dramatic journey. Let me see if I can explain what I mean… Jack’s journey is more obvious. He’s kind of a wreck at the beginning, falling apart all over the place, suffering nightmares and consequently not sleeping, losing time, utterly lost. His family is all up in desperate denial, and things don’t look good for the future. Then Celeste arrives and gives him a purpose — solve this mystery! — and he starts putting the pieces back together again. (As an aside, I think this book will resonate with a lot of readers, because the wounded hero who gets his shit together trope seems to be pretty dang popular.) By contrast, Celeste starts out contained and competent, happy in her little life and independence; as her mystery unravels and she explores her grief, readers and Celeste alike discover that she never was all that happy and, after a bit of emotional upheaval, she realizes that happiness does not lie in a life of emotional sterility but that, to live truly, she needs to love.

So, those of you who know me personally should be smirking right about now. (I’m not exactly known for my emotional connectivity.) And maybe that’s why Celeste’s story resonated so strongly with me… Who knows? Either way, I fell in love with The Soldier’s Dark Secret because it asks such interesting questions about emotional health, grief, guilt, shame, and — especially — love. But I think a slew of other readers will enjoy it because Jack is seriously swoony (also strong and hot).

So, yeah. OK, I know I already talked about this one a little bit (if rather obliquely) in my 2014 historical romance favorites post, but… I have more to say, and now that it’s been out a few months, I’m less concerned about dropping spoilers left and right. Sooo… you with me? Goody.

The secrets behind the wedding veil

For penniless widow Ainsley McBrayne, marriage is the only solution. She’s vulnerable yet fiercely independent, so shackling herself to another man seems horrifying! Until handsome stranger Innes Drummond tempts Ainsley to become his temporary wife.

Once married, Ainsley hardly recognizes the rugged Highlander Innes transforms into! He sets her long-dormant pulse racing, and she’s soon craving the enticing delights of their marriage bed. She has until Hogmanay to show Innes that their fake marriage could be for real.

I hate to say it, but I kinda hate that blurb. I think it’s the exclamation points (and the fragment… and the idea that her pulse has actually been long-dormant. That’s just unhealthy.) Also, what the hell is Hogmanay? I read the book, and I have no idea…. I feel better having gotten that out.

I tend to get excited about marriage of convenience (MOC) books, because.. well… OK, to be honest, it’s because they tend not to rely so much on instalust. They don’t need it to explain why these characters are suddenly spending so damn much time together. (I like friends-to-lovers and second-chance stories for the same reason.) But! Good MOC stories also show characters having to learn how to make it work, how to wiggle around in a relationship with the highest stakes possible (especially in a historical romance). And that can be a fertile ground for a lot of really interesting stuff.

Anyway, in Strangers at the Altar, Kaye brings together an agony aunt (that’s an advice columnist on this side of the pond) and an engineer, each opposed to marriage for compelling reasons yet compelled to marry nonetheless. And — you guys — the meet cute at the lawyer’s office is so fantastic. Innes and Ainsley start out strangers, to be sure, but friendship (and, through it, romance) develops between them. Innes helps Ainsley in writing her advice column. (Those scenes are some of my favorites in the book, along with the scenes between Ainsley and her friend (and publisher) Felicity.) And Ainsley helps Innes make progress with his estate and its people. (He’s reluctant to accept that help, of course, but her outsider’s eye and creative problem solving pretty much save the day. Go Ainsley!)

Together, Ainsley and Innes muddle through their issues and complicate their friendship and marriage with intimacy. As in all the best MOC stories, the scenes wherein the characters adjust to changes in their relationship and/or new things learned about each other carry such tension, such gravity from their married state. (Even among these characters, who plan to part ways after a year.) There is more than just attraction keeping the characters together, and the stakes are high. There’s some delicious drama in their relationship and conflict, and the denouement is just stellar (so, so much groveling. I loved it. LOVED. IT.).

Strangers at the Altar feels heroine-centric to me, mostly because Ainsely is awesomesauce. Innes is a great character — don’t get me wrong — but he can’t compete with Ainsley in my book. And that’s probably because I’m just much more sympathetic to heroines than heroes. Ainsley’s troubles seem more grounded in reality, and what ails her — her financial insecurity — is ubiquitous to almost all women at the time. She has had to deal with first her father then her husband making terrible financial decisions for her, and she has been left to pick up the tab and shift as well as she can. That’s an age-old story, and it feels powerful to me because there’s just so much truth there.

In comparison, Innes’s story seems almost contrived (I mean, it’s actually no more contrived than Ainsley’s story… it’s all fiction, after all, but it’s a much less universal story.). He’s reeling, 14 years later, from guilt and grief after the death of his twin and anger at his father for being such an asshat. Innes leaves (is exiled) the family home and goes out into the world to become an engineer with a penchant for bridge design. I’m pretty sure there’s a metaphor there.

Anyway, what I really wanted to talk about is the book’s lack of a magic baby epilogue. For you genre romance readers out there, how many times have you read a book that features infertility as a plot point or conflict and is resolved by a magic baby epilogue? Countless times, amiright? Our cultural norms of relationship happiness, that 1 + 1 = 3 and that dating leads to marriage and marriage leads to babies, have a strong foothold in genre romance, and it’s a rare book that leaves the fertility question unresolved (or resolved in decided infertility). Strangers at the Altar is one of those rare books that implicitly argues that it’s still “happily ever after” even when not everything is lined up all perfectly right and tight. (That, perhaps, “happily ever after” doesn’t have to include lack of sleep, fighting over conflicting parenting styles, worrying constantly that your little human will turn out to be an asshole, and never having a moment to yourself. Come to think of it, much as I love my children — and I really do — a baby-free “happily ever after” seems much more romantic to me.)

*FTC disclosure – I received e-galleys of both books from Harlequin via NetGalley in exchange for review consideration. My opinion is my own.* (Further disclosure — I think Marguerite Kaye is boss.)

Kelly and Kim’s discussion of Indecent…Exposure by Jane O’Reilly

So one day my buddy Kim sent me a text asking me if I’d be interested in reading Indecent…Exposure by Jane O’Reilly, which some readers said reminded them of Charlotte Stein’s writing style. I love me some Stein, so I was all over it. Read on, and Kim and I will tell you all about our thoughts.

Setting up the money shot…

Quiet, sensible Ellie Smithson is a highly respectable photographer by day – but there are only so many wedding photo-shoots you can take without your mind wandering to what happens when the blissfully happy bride is swept off her feet and straight to the honeymoon suite’s sumptuous four-poster bed…

So after dark, Ellie takes pictures of a more…intimate nature – a dirty little secret she’s kept from her accountant Tom. Until now. It seems Tom is the subject of her next racy shoot!

It isn’t just the blurring of work and personal boundaries that’s the problem; secretly Ellie has always had fantasies of a most unprofessional nature about the almost illegally gorgeous Tom. With such temptation on display, how will she ever stay behind the camera?!

The first book in the Indecent… trilogy.

Kim: Kelly had always told me how much I would love reading Charlotte Stein. I love me some dirty, filthy reads from time to time and Stein fills that box. When I heard that Jane O’Reilly could also fill that box I was indeed intrigued.

Ellie, our heroine, is what got me hooked into the story. I loved her double life so much! On one hand we have a photographer who does fantastic portraits, weddings, babies….you know the typical things a professional photographer photographs. (Say that ten times fast!)

And on the other is the Ellie who photographs deeply sexual and erotic images.  She lives vicariously through her clients and their shoots.

Kelly: I enjoyed Ellie’s double life, too. It’s kind of a parallel to the double life any erotica reader has, right? We’re probably not reading this stuff all the time. Our lives are full of standard fare: work, family, friends, weddings, funerals, etc. Sometimes we read nonfiction, mainstream fiction, romance, sci-fi.  And some of us have e-readers or bookshelves full of dirty, filthy stories that we probably don’t talk about at our book club meetings. (Unless we belong to the best kind of book club.) Anyway, I loved Ellie, because she’s totally neurotic and relatable.

Kim: And how about Tom? And his wonderful, deliciously dirty mouth? He seems all prim and proper from Ellie’s descriptions of him, but when he’s allowed to speak for himself, boy can he turn up the heat. The chemistry between the two of them is palpable at times, and I seriously wanted to cut it with a knife. But he isn’t just a dirty mouth. We learn that he needs to sometimes do outrageous things and get tattoos.

Kelly: Sometimes accountants have to, you know? It can be a boring job… unless you’re SUPER into spreadsheets and numbers…

Kim: HA! He does enjoy his spreadsheets and numbers, but also enjoys voyeurism, boxing, and Ellie’s erotic photography.

Kelly: Tom and Ellie serve as interesting foils for the other. Both are somewhat buttoned up, hidden, and repressed in their professional lives, and both fight against that repression (albeit in very different ways). Tom is much more accepting of himself and his needs; Ellie feels shame over hers. In a way, they seem to be a fairly decent example of how modern culture accepts (even assumes) the desires of men but shames those of women.

Kim: I want to delve more into what Kelly said about Tom and Ellie. Their foil-ish qualities help each other realize that what they repress doesn’t need to be considered shameful. There is nothing wrong with Tom enjoying erotic photography or adrenaline pumping activities. Look at all the people in the world who go skydiving or base jumping. His past makes his feelings of shame understandable, but thankfully Ellie helps him bring that side out. Shows him it’s ok to be himself.

Ellie meanwhile (with Tom’s help) undergoes a personal sexual awakening that makes her find beauty in the erotic photographs she takes. And Kelly’s right about society shaming women for their desires. Ellie thinks she should have to keep her business (and her enjoyment of sex) a secret. She’s unable to ask for what she wants sexually due to embarrassment over her desires. I’m glad O’Reilly added this little dig at our social norms and chose to let Ellie discover herself, effectively overcoming this stigma.

Kelly:  So Tom and Ellie are wonderful, and their scenes are interesting (and filthy), but… let’s talk about the setup for a bit. Because the plot and conflict in this story are a little strange. So Ellie’s best friend Amber has discovered that her boyfriend has not only been cheating on her, he’s gone and proposed to the other woman. So she’s like, I’ll show him! So she tells the guy in line behind her at the bank — that’s Tom, Ellie’s accountant — that Ellie takes erotic photos, and would he like a blow job (that Ellie will photograph). And he says yes, of course. (Of course.) Amber asks Ellie for this super special photo of the event, and Ellie doesn’t quite get the shot, because she’s distracted by Tom, how much she likes him, and how jealous she feels in the moment. That super special photo (more accurately the lack of it) ends up being one of the major pieces of conflict driving the story, which makes no sense to me.

Kim: Much is made about the friendship between Ellie and Amber, like how much Ellie owes Amber for keeping her “together.” I’m not really sure what she went through that Amber kept her from breaking apart, but I truly never understand their friendship.

Ellie tells nobody about her side business. Nobody but Amber. And here we have Amber taking advantage of it, telling Ellie’s accountant about it, just so she can get back at a cheating boyfriend. Which, not for nothing honey, but if he chose another woman over you chances are a picture of you blowing some other dude isn’t going to piss him off.

Kelly: Yeah, no kidding. But Amber’s obsessed with showing this money shot image to her Cheaty Mccheater boyfriend, convinced that it’ll make her feel better (how?). And Ellie — the narrator of this piece — pretty much just goes along with it (and you get the idea that that’s how their friendship goes: Amber behaves in incredibly selfish and destructive ways and Ellie just goes with it because she has few friends, anyway, and she feels a debt of gratitude to Amber, because Amber helped Ellie get through her difficult school years. Also, I suspect that Ellie is a bit of an unreliable narrator at times.). The more Amber rages about the cheater, the more Ellie capitulates. And even when Ellie and Tom act on their mutual attraction, Ellie still isn’t able to separate herself from Amber’s will. It’s very strange how Ellie sees herself as Amber’s necessary pawn. Fortunately for us readers, Tom doesn’t, and he spares us what would otherwise be a very awkward scene.

Kim: What really pissed me off was when Amber yelled at Ellie for not being honest with her about her feelings for Tom. As if she could with Amber hollering all the time about “why didn’t you get the money shot?!!?!”

AND THEN Amber’s ending (in this story at least). KGJKLGJ:KSGJLKDJKDFK

I’m so angry I can’t produce words. All that drama was for nothing!!! Amber’s selfishness knows no bounds. She truly cares for herself and her pleasure only.

Kelly: yeah.. It might have been better if the actual conflict of the story had stayed focused on Ellie and Tom and their respective drama. Of course, how would they ever have discovered the other’s inner pervert if they’d remained ever accountant and client? (I don’t know the answer, but I’m sure a lot of folks could come up with plenty of scenarios that didn’t involve revenge BJs. Just saying.) Anyway, so much page time was given to Amber and her stupid drama that the actual conflict of the story — Ellie and her issues and Tom and his and their budding romance (and boinking) — got shifted to the side a bit, and it sort of falls flat, in the end. (I thought.) I also thought they stumbled toward love — in the forever way — a little too quick.

Kim: Agreed! It was a bit magic penis if you will.

Kelly: Yeah, just a bit.

Kim’s final thoughts: Even with Amber and the magic penis bit, I still genuinely enjoyed the novella. I enjoyed seeing two people cast off the shame society made them feel and come into their own. By the end of the book Ellie and Tom know who they are and, as such, are able to bask in the newness of their relationship and (too fast) love for each other.

Kelly’s final thoughts: I liked it, too.  It’s funny, because I’d already read a bunch of Charlotte Stein’s books, and — at first — the similar style and voice threw me off. But I just re-read this novella today, and it seemed a lot more distinct and original (and un-Stein, if that makes sense) than when I first read it several months ago. It’s possible that on my first read, I paid attention to the things that seemed familiar. On the surface it seems just like it’s using a Stein trope, as though neurotic characters + dirty sex = “in the style of Charlotte Stein”.  But on a second read, that similarity seemed incidental. Or maybe I just want all erotica to be written in the style of Charlotte Stein. Whatever. I’ll be keeping an eye out in future for Jane O’Reilly.

Review – The Beautiful Ashes by Jeaniene Frost

I was planning to have this post up first thing this morning, but an evil migraine intervened. And then once I could see again, I got kind of caught up in a book that I just had to finish, no matter how much it hurt to read. Anyway. My buddy Kim (from Reflections of a Book Addict) got me to read Jeaniene Frost’s Night Prince series (VLAD. ‘Nuff said.), and I surprised the holy hell out of myself by liking it. A lot. So when I was given a chance to read the first book in Frost’s new series, I jumped on it with hand-clapping glee. I guess this post is part of a blog tour (maybe?), so there’s a tour-wide giveaway of some sort. I wasn’t really paying attention to the details… I’m just here to talk about the book.

In a world of shadows, anything is possible. Except escaping your fate.

Ever since she was a child, Ivy has been gripped by visions of strange realms just beyond her own. But when her sister goes missing, Ivy discovers the truth is far worse—her hallucinations are real, and her sister is trapped in a parallel realm. And the one person who believes her is the dangerously attractive guy who’s bound by an ancient legacy to betray her.

Adrian might have turned his back on those who raised him, but that doesn’t mean he can change his fate…no matter how strong a pull he feels toward Ivy. Together they search for the powerful relic that can save her sister, but Adrian knows what Ivy doesn’t: that every step brings Ivy closer to the truth about her own destiny, and a war that could doom the world. Sooner or later, it will be Ivy on one side and Adrian on the other. And nothing but ashes in between…

I don’t foray much into paranormal/urban fantasy stuff, so you’ll have to take my thoughts with a giant bucket of salt. The thing is, I tend to set a fairly low bar for PNR/UF stuff, not because I think the genre unworthy but because I read it so infrequently that I haven’t yet learned how to set adequately high expectations of it. So this is what I expect from the PNR/UF books that I end up reading: 1. that they have words; 2. that they have fast-moving plots to distract me from all the elements that require me to suspend disbelief. The Beautiful Ashes had both those things, a dash of humor, a swoony, somewhat misunderstood quasi-antihero, and a morally ambiguous underlying theme. In other words, I liked it. A lot.

In many ways, The Beautiful Ashes reminds me of the New Adult lovechild of C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. The demon realms that our intrepid protagonists explore bear some resemblance to the grey town of Lewis’s allegory (though Frost’s version is quite a bit more horrifying); these realms are hackneyed imitations of human life, attempting the grandeur of some of humanity’s more inspired architecture but missing all the light, warmth, and inspiration. I’m a sucker for architecture as character or world development (one of the reasons I love Jane Austen), and I enjoyed that touch. As in American Gods, the characters in this story travel around the continental U.S. (and Mexico) searching for thin spaces (in this case thin spaces of the demonic variety), and, as in AG, the fictional vortexes and portals to demon worlds exist in our world and are completely believable as vortexes and portals. These places include the Oregon desert (I live one state south of Oregon, and I had no idea that state had any areas that aren’t green and perpetually rainy), a B&B somewhere in New England, a section of boardwalk somewhere on the east coast, etc. I hold out hope that in future books in the series the characters will visit the world’s largest thermometer, the Winchester house, and that giant ball of twine.

I don’t mean to imply that The Beautiful Ashes is a knock-off of American Gods. It’s not, mainly because it has a much more positive outlook and because its protagonist is a young woman whose goodness you never really question (rather than a gritty, down-on-his-luck, cuckolded, convict widower who also happens to be the son of Odin). If AG is a trickster mythology celebrating goodness alongside moral relativity and refusing to take a stance on which is preferable, The Beautiful Ashes is a good vs. evil mythology that dabbles in relativity but eventually concludes that things happen for a reason, that there is a divine scheme, that this scheme might suck occasionally, but that it is still important for “good” to keep its eye on the end game.

Much of the conflict in the book derives from the growing bond between Ivy, a genetically predestined savior-type, and Adrian, a genetically predestined betrayer-type. They feel drawn to each other; they learn to admire the other; but they know (Adrian more than Ivy) that there can be no true trust between them. Ivy and Adrian are united by their hatred of demons and their distrust of angels, but that unity is tenuous. I had a few issues with their relationship. For starters, Ivy is about 20 years old, and Adrian is well over 100. In nearly every conceivable way, Ivy is disadvantaged: she’s younger, both in actual years and in exposure to the whole angels vs. demons thing; she has almost no experience with relationships; she has almost no experience of physical relationships; she is naive; and — of course — Adrian, his demon-fighting cohorts, and the angelic host keep her at a disadvantage by feeding her the truth bit by bit, essentially manipulating her with incomplete information. That’s… annoying. (I also wondered if the conflict between Ivy and Adrian, their conflicting destinies, would be as compelling if it were not mentioned so often… and I thought their special bond looked an awful lot like celestial instalust from here.)

Oh, and I just have to tack this bit on here… I wasn’t real keen on the ending. Don’t get me wrong: I was all about Ivy breaking off on her own, sullying her goodness a little bit with some badassery, and journeying into some moral gray area, but… once a character embarks on that path, she doesn’t get to stand on a soapbox of self-righteousness. She hops off that soapbox pretty quick, but I was annoyed that she ever hopped on it.

Bottom line: I liked The Beautiful Ashes and I want more of it, but the romance in this first installment was the weakest element (and I love me some romance…). I hold out hope that the story’s continuation includes more character development, less insane chemistry, and a more even playing field for the protagonists. (I also hope that bit about Adrian being more than 100 years older than Ivy doesn’t come up again. It’s seriously creepy.)

The Beautiful Ashes was released on August 26, 2014 as a paperback and e-book by Harlequin. For more information about the book, click on the cover image above to visit its page on Goodreads. You can find out more about Jeaniene Frost on her website, Twitter, or Facebook.

*FTC Disclosure – I received an ARC from Rock Star PR and Harlequin for review consideration.*